Puerto Ricans in America
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Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, Ph.D.:
Esmeralda Santiago's Almost a Woman provides a rich perspective into the complex history of Puerto Rican migration to the United States. Although it is difficult to find a story with a character -- fictional or historical -- that captures all the varied elements of the Puerto Rican migrant and diasporic experience, Almost a Woman successfully depicts many important aspects of this experience.
In line with more recent scholarship that has stressed the importance of women in Puerto Rican migration, the PBS rendition of Santiago's tale vividly captures the multifaceted roles Puerto Rican women played. From young Negi's struggles navigating the hostile world of the New York City public schools, to her mother's battle to secure steady employment in a city with a decreasing need for unskilled and semi-skilled workers, Almost a Woman depicts many of the roles that Puerto Rican women of all ages have played within their communities. Another important figure in the story, Tata (the grandmother), serves as a unifying force for a family faced with hardships and dispersion.
Even a minor female character like Negi's Puerto Rican friend at her Brooklyn school, serves to document the complexity and variation within the boricua migration story. Indeed, one wishes this minor character would have been more developed to explore the evolution of her identity as a young Puerto Rican girl who was either born in the U.S. or had been here longer than Negi. As Almost a Woman clearly shows, Puerto Rican women played a fundamental role in this community by maintaining and recreating networks of family and culture that were crucial for day-to-day survival and adaptation.
Most people associate Puerto Rican New Yorkers with either El Barrio (Spanish Harlem) or the Bronx. Esmeralda's story occurs in Brooklyn, where some of the earliest Puerto Rican enclaves were developed since the first decades of the twentieth century. I would have liked to see the PBS adaptation capture the idiosyncrasies of this Puerto Rican community. One of the untold stories of Puerto Rican life in the U.S. is the regional difference among migrants established in different boroughs of New York City. It would have been a real contribution to the telling of the Puerto Rican migrant story if Brooklyn's Puerto Rican flavor had come alive in the film.
Still, Almost a Woman accurately shows the continuous change of residences that was also part of many Puerto Rican migrants' experience. This constant movement made establishing community ties more challenging and affected numerous aspects of quotidian routine such as attending school, commuting to work, and place of worship.
I am also impressed by the breadth and creativity of the companion teacher's guide. Teachers will find materials, information and concrete classroom exercises which will not only help students have a better understanding of the Puerto Rican experience in the U.S., but will also provide a window for discussion and learning about identity-related issues for other American ethnic and racial groups.
The guide and the film will help students and general audiences understand the determination of many Puerto Ricans, who like Negi and her family, came to the United States to improve their lives and strived to do so with dignity and courage.
Félix V. Matos Rodríguez is Director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York City. (http://www.centropr.org) and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Black and Puerto Rican Studies. He previously served as the Interim Director of the Latino Cultural Center at Northeastern University, and taught Latin American and Hispanic Caribbean Studies at City College, CUNY. Matos Rodríguez is the author of Women and Urban Change in San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1820-1868 and the co-author of Pioneros: Puerto Ricans in New York City, 1896 - 1948.
Sonia Nieto | Virginia Sánchez Korrol | Félix Matos Rodríguez
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